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The American Dance Festival returned to Duke University’s Reynolds Theater for a three-night run of a triple bill. The focus of this grouping of artists and dances is on the stories, conditions and feelings of daily life, an aspect of dance that this 75th anniversary dance history survey has not previously examined. It's an important component of dance art; however, this program is uneven.
The evening opens with Ronald K. Brown dancing his 2003 solo For You, written in memory of the late Stephanie Reinhart, co-director of the ADF for many years and an inspiration to many dancers and choreographers. It is a moving meditation on love and loss, and the memories that teem within each separate individual. Brown’s physical grace conveys something of what we all feel about separateness and connection to others, living and dead.
Brown’s study of our self-enforced emotional separations from those closest to us, danced by his troupe, Evidence, A Dance Company, is less successful. Walking Out the Dark, from 2002, contains some startling, exciting dancing within a remarkably dull and static structure. It is a terribly earnest piece, and its spoken word component tells us all about what to think, draining anticipation from the experience before the dancing even begins. Nothing builds, nothing develops. With only four dancers, there are only a few combinations of conflict possible, and they come around right on schedule. This piece made its premiere at ADF in 2001, but the real purpose of including it here may have been to contrast it with the Doug Varone work that closes the show.
Between Brown and Varone comes the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, performing choreographer Donald McKayle’s 1951 classic Games. Danced to traditional play and work songs sung onstage by the performers, Games depicts the play, and then the loss of innocence of street kids in a tough world. The old songs make it seem less relevant than it is — although today such children are more often shot by their contemporaries than by the police. The steps are not those that would be performed by kids today, but the aggression, the swaggering, the inventiveness, and the waste are all up-to-date. However, the choreography eclipsed the performance on the 7th. Anyone who remembers the blistering re-staging of the piece with the African-American Dance Ensemble that was danced in Reynolds Theater in 1986 will be disappointed by the brighter and politer tones of this version. The dancing on the 7th didn’t have the flammable quality or the excellence of technique that the AADE exhibited in that memorable performance 22 years ago. Both the foreboding and the rage are missing from this version, making it more of an entertainment and less of an artwork.
Both those emotions were present, along with a spectrum of other, more nuanced feelings, in Doug Varone’s Home, performed by Varone and Peggy Baker, along with two chairs, to music by Dick Connette. A couple of long-standing explores the territory of power and desire between them. They run the gamut between tenderness and aggressiveness, and from chilly self-defense to hot anger, from exaggerated courtesy to cruel one-upmanship, before settling back into balance with each other. The beauty of it as a dance is not so much in its instantly recognizable quotidian content, as in the way Varone nudges normal, pedestrian movement into dancing that is anything but ordinary, and makes feeling explicit in the motion.
The evening closes with Varone’s 2006 Lux, set to Philip Glass’ The Light. Unlike the rest of the evening’s dances, Lux has no obvious narrative. It stands in contrast to Walking Out the Dark in that way, and in the way it surges toward connection and happiness, but also in the way it is music-driven. There’s a clever lighting effect — a rising moon or sun gradually lifts from the horizon in the middle of the backdrop — but one can hardly note its progress behind the increasingly ecstatic flow of dancing. Again, Varone starts off with the most normal, casual movements, and reintroduces their simplicity periodically, but he develops them, builds them into dazzling, dancerly sequences of every kind. The eight dancers, like the music, are in constant, accelerating motion. They come and go, mass and part, connect in hugs and lifts and rolls; they leap and dash and lift each other to flight in between beating out staccato foot-rhythms and arm-propelled swirls. The overall effect is something like the ocean’s heaving dance — an ocean of people — and your eye is enchanted one minute by its huge patterns, and another by its detail, and your heart is cheered to optimism by its eternal ebb and flow.
The program continues July 9; see our calendar for details.